In the cold predawn light, a force of fifty fighters trotted out of Strunland Keep. They rode to battle a nest of janacks and brechas, the symbiotic pair of monsters, that had plagued their world for over a thousand years—the Malvers monsters.
Rizelya rode to the side of her half-sister Naila in the lead of the group, consisting of twelve women, eight young boys in their late teens, and thirty warriors. Since becoming the Strunland Keep Alpha, Naila rarely led a fighting-pack anymore. She and her co-Alpha, Kelstrun, were usually too busy with all the demands of leading a Territory Keep. So when Rizelya had entered the stable to saddle her horse, she had been surprised to see Naila doing the same.
Like all the other women in the group, Rizelya and Naila were dressed all in red: red leather shirt, pants, and boots. A red hooded cape covered their heads and shoulders and would be tossed to the side once they reached the nest. There were certain colors the Malvers monsters couldn’t see and red was one of them. It also was the color of fire magic.
“Kaieli, I wish you wouldn’t come with us,” Rizelya said, glancing to the side at her heart-sister and best-friend, riding next to her. A few of Kaieli’s dark brown, almost black, curls peeked out from the hood of her red cloak. Like all Posair women, her Talents, her magical powers, were indicated by her hair and eye color. Kaieli was a very strong Brown, a worker of earth magic, and her blue-gray eyes showed her secondary Talents were Blue and Gray. “Let the Browns with less empathic ability take care of us on the field.”
“You know I can’t do that,” Kaieli replied. “We all have our parts to play in our war with the monsters. Mine is to help the fighters with my healing abilities, and your job, Dear Heart, is to kill monsters.”
Rizelya’s lips tightened into a hard line. As much as she didn’t like it, Kaieli was right. Many fighters were alive and healthy because of Kaieli being on the field with them.
Rizelya’s own dark auburn hair and brown eyes proclaimed her a Red with some Brown. It was one of the reasons she and the other women were here. Their fire magic was an effective means of fighting and killing the monsters.
Over the past seventy-five years the formation of the monsters’ nests had fallen into a predictable pattern that allowed the Posairs to predict the timing within a day or two. The nest they were headed to was due to mature soon. It was imperative that the fighters arrive before the monsters left the nest. If left unchecked, even a small nest would devastate all animal life, including people, in the area within a few days.
After an octar of riding, the group pulled their horses to a stop in a clearing. A large corral sat in the center, shaded by trees, with water barrels on one end. The fighters dismounted, loosened the girth straps on their horses’ saddles, and led them into the enclosure. Besides Kaieli, two other healers had ridden with the group; all three had agreed to wait with the horses until the battle was over. They pulled blankets and baskets from the back of their saddles. Two of the warriors stayed to guard the horses and the healers.
Rizelya grabbed her weapon, a helbraught, from its place on her saddle. Each woman carried one. The helbraught was a long staff with a long, slightly curved blade made from helstrim attached to one end. Once forged, it never needed sharpening. The two-foot blade easily penetrated the thick hide of the monsters. Rizelya looked with longing at the other women’s helbraughts. All of them were several inches longer than hers, since the length of the staff was determined by the user’s height. It meant she had to get closer to the monsters. She also had a helstrablade, a long knife also made from helstrim, in a sheath on her belt. If needed she could also feed her magic into it, like she did with the blade of her helbraught. When forging the helstrim into blades, the helstramiesters did something which allowed the blades to accept and focus magic.
The men had their own weapons: claws, teeth, and venom. Ages past, the men had traded their ability to work most magic for the gift of shapeshifting. They now could only do very minor magic and had two other forms they could shift into, a wolf and a warrior-wolf. The men shifted into their wolf form and slunk into the forest.
Eiden, the only non-Red female fighter in the group, threw back the hood of her cape and the sunlight glinted on her sunny-yellow hair. She turned to grin at Rizelya, flecks of green flashed in her gold eyes. Rizelya felt responsible for Eiden and would keep her safe. After she was caught following the pack into a battle a few years ago, Eiden had cajoled Rizelya to teach her how to fight. Yellows weren’t thought to be as effective against the monsters with their air magic as Reds were with their fire magic. But as a double Yellow, Eiden’s air Talent was impressive. She was strong and creative; not only could she cool or heat air, she had a gift for solidifying it.
The group of nine women strode silently down the path, their hooded capes flaring around them as they walked. The shadowy shapes of the wolves flowing in the trees kept pace with them. The forest was quiet. Predators walked the forest this dawn, and they were hunting.
It didn’t take them long to reach the nest. The forest began to give way to swamp grass and marsh. The monster nests always formed near swamps where malignant magic pooled. Rizelya had heard there were even swamps in the middle of the dry plains.
The wind shifted slightly, and Rizelya drew in a deep breath and snorted from the stink of malignant, stagnant magic—the smell of brechas and janacks.
With a slight movement Rizelya brought the helbraught in front of her. She fed a small amount of fire magic into the blade. Glancing at the forms shadowing the women she nodded to herself. Yes, the men have caught the smell too.
The stench became more pervasive as the group drew near the nest site. Although the timing of the nests was in an established pattern, the size never could be predicted. Sometimes the smell would indicate how many monsters they’d have to fight. This one smelled big. Rizelya suppressed a shudder.
Naila didn’t pause when the stench of the nest wafted over them. Instead she led the group toward the nest, her pace strong and confident, her helbraught held loosely in her hands. Rizelya admired her much older sister, who carried on the family tradition of becoming a Keep Alpha. Everyone expected Rizelya to become one, too. So far, she had evaded being even a squad-pack alpha.
Ahead Rizelya could see the demarcation where forest and swamp vied for dominance. She, along with the rest, stopped when the glade of marshy ground came in sight.
Soon the battle would begin …
Rizelya adjusted the grip on her helbraught when a large dusky red wolf, his pelt dulled with age, slipped out of the forest and approached Naila. A shimmer, and an old man stood where the wolf had been a moment before. Rizelya hissed in agitation and worry. Damn old man, he shouldn’t be here. He’s too old. Now I have one more person to protect.
“The nest is about fifty feet from the trees, Naila,” the old man, Histrun, said.
“How many?” Naila pushed back her hood, revealing a thick braid of bright red hair with bold streaks of gold in it. Her light yellow-gold eyes narrowed.
“Big,” he said with a shudder. “I haven’t ever seen one this big.”
Trepidation coursed through Rizelya at the news. At over a hundred years old, Histrun had seen many battles with the monsters, and he didn’t join the fighting much anymore. Pride made him come today to watch the first real battle of the young warriors he had trained.
“At least ten janacks and twice that of brechas.” Histrun turned his head and spat.
Rizelya wasn’t the only one who cursed. This nest was three times the normal size. She was glad Naila had decided to come with them, they could use her vast experience. She had been a cunning leader in her time as fighting-pack alpha. They might not have enough fighters, even with the extra eight warriors-in-training. If they’d known it would be this large, they would have brought another fighting-pack with them. Usually a team of eight Reds and thirty warriors was enough to handle a group of adult monsters. But if this nest was in the adult stage, ready to leave the nest, they were in trouble.
Adults were hunger incarnate. They would eat anything that walked on two legs or four, or flew, or crawled. The only thing they didn’t eat was plants and those they killed with the slime they excreted. The thirty monsters could annihilate all life in this valley within the eight days of a chedan if they weren’t killed before they left the nest. Luckily, their lifespan was short, only one to two chedan.
“Stage?” Naila’s voice was rough, barely above a whisper. Her throat had been mangled by a janack years ago, ruining her voice and making it difficult for her to talk. She lifted a hand to rub absently at the scar covering her throat.
“Adult. They’ll leave the nest as the day warms up.”
Naila gestured and the group of women split up into pairs, each with a group of wolves and two of the unproved boys following them, to surround the nest. Each pair took a stance at a cardinal direction point. The wolves spread out to form a large circle around the nest, being careful not to get too close to the swamp. No one entered the swamps alone, there were too many dangerous plants and small monsters hidden in their murky depths.
Rizelya was teamed with Naila and Eiden in the west. Rizelya not only had to help her team keep the monsters from escaping their assigned area, but she was also responsible for keeping Naila and Eiden safe. Both of them would scoff at her, but it had been a long time since Naila had led a fighting-pack against the monsters. She was a good Keep Alpha and well liked. If Rizelya didn’t keep her safe, she might as well become a rogue wolf. While she was at it, she’d better keep herself safe, or Kaieli would be difficult to live with. Rizelya looked over at the side where Histrun waited with the young boys. She’d keep him safe too.
A tingle in the air told Rizelya that Eiden was forming a shield of cold air around the nest. It was a new technique she was trying for the first time. It would give them a few more milcrons to get into position before the janacks in the nest detected their body heat.
Rizelya drew in a breath when she saw the size of the nest. Histrun hadn’t lied; it was huge. The monsters in the nest were starting to stir with the warmth of the day. Spiky shapes intertwined with slick tentacles as the janacks caressed the spikes on the brechas’ backs. Rumbled growls from the brechas were answered by clacks from the janacks.
Rizelya began to pour her fire magic into her helbraught, readying for the fight to come. The glow around the circle showed the other women were also preparing their blades.
Naila waited until the groups on the far side of the nest reached position, and then sent in mind-speech the order to change.
Soft snarls filled the glade as the men began to transform into something more powerful, stronger, and faster than even their wolf form: the warrior form, a perfect blend of wolf and man. The women averted their gaze. The shift from man to wolf, or back, was easy for the men. Just a thought and they traded one form for the other. The shift to the warrior form took more effort and was painful as limbs stretched, muscles bulked, and claws lengthened. Standing, a warrior towered over his brothers by two feet or more and had fifty to a hundred pounds more mass. They became a match for the monsters.
A growl and yelp of pain nearby caught Rizelya’s attention. Leistrun must be caught in the change. Murmured instructions confirmed her guess as Histrun helped the teenager through his shift. Rizelya felt a moment of pity for the young men. After this fight they will truly be warriors—or dead. Mother grant mercy we all go home. She smiled at the snarl of satisfaction as Leistrun completed his change. It shouldn’t be much longer for the men to finish.
As if on cue, a howl sounded across the glade, picked up and answered by the other warriors. The nest squirmed as the howls reverberated over and over. The ground vibrated with the challenge. Sensor stalks poked up out of the mass, tentacles unwound from spiky limbs, rumbled growls and clacks grew more intense. The shapes of individual monsters began to separate from the mass, and those on the outer edge moved toward the sound of the howling warriors.
On an unseen block of air created by Eiden, Naila stood above them all, giving her an advantage in directing the fight. *South!* she shouted in mind-speech.
The southern part of the circle blazed with heat and light as the women fed more fire magic into their helbraughts. The sensor stalks of the outer janacks whipped toward the heat. The monsters used their heat seeking stalks to detect life forms. Fire erupted in front of the women, drawing more of the monsters’ attention.
A group of two janacks and five brechas broke away from the nest, trundling toward the heat. Once they moved away from the nest a thin stream of fire erupted on the ground behind them, blocking any retreat back to the nest. Warrior-wolves raced behind the monsters. The fire continued, now a curtain behind the warriors, until the group of monsters and warriors were surrounded. One of the brechas left the nest and headed toward the group. The fire flared and drove it back to the nest. Fire and the venom of the warriors were the only things they knew that could kill the monsters.
The inner fire separating warriors and monsters dropped. The warriors swarmed the monsters from behind, using their long, sharp claws to slice through the tough hides of the monsters. A tentacle from a janack went flying, putrid green ichor splashing the warriors. Their pelts protected them from the acidic ichor. The ring of fire in front of the women flared, burning any flying ichor before it reached them. The monsters turned from the women and engaged the warriors. The women used their burning helbraughts to fight any monsters attempting to cross the ring of fire.
Rizelya turned her attention away from the fight as Naila called out, *East!* Helbraughts glowed in the east, and another similar group of monsters broke off from the nest, the janacks’ clicks drove the brechas forward.
The glade rang with snarls and growls as the warriors attacked the janacks in the group. Once they were destroyed, the brechas would fall into cannibalistic disarray.
The nest rumbled. Naila, with long past experience, cried, *North!* just as three janacks with their accompanying brechas erupted from the nest and headed to the northern section of the circle. Before they were engaged, two more janacks and six brechas left the nest and swarmed toward Naila and Rizelya in the west.
“What in blazes?” Naila sounded startled. She had spoken so only Rizelya could hear her. “That’s never happened.”
Rizelya threw a shield of fire around Naila and Eiden. Histrun was too far away for her to shield. She looked at the nest. It wasn’t empty. “May the Mother be merciful. There’s more than we thought!”
“Guard me,” Naila told Rizelya as another group of brechas was sent from the nest to attack the southern contingent from behind. “Not typical nest.”
Rizelya felt Eiden put a shield of air around Naila just behind her fire. Rizelya nodded in approval. The warriors in her group howled and rushed to meet the monsters coming toward them. Fire now surrounded the entire clearing. Rizelya heard a scream and the fire flared out of control in the north. One of the Reds had been hurt, but she didn’t have time to wonder who it was.
A tentacle reached toward her. She slashed with her glowing helbraught, feeding it a bit more fire magic. A slight resistance, and then the blade slid through the tough hide to sever the tentacle. Ichor flew toward her. Fire blazed and caught the ichor, burning it to ash. A young warrior—it looked like Leistrun—attacked another tentacle that was reaching for her. Claws dripping with venom, he slashed. Another tentacle was gone. It would take a few moments for the venom to go through the ichor system of the monster and reach the bulbous head-body; until then, the janack was still deadly. Other warriors were attacking the other tentacles, working their way to the head, staying away from the open maw filled with huge, sharp teeth.
Before Leistrun could move away, a brecha swiped him, catching him in the hip. He howled. Rizelya used her helbraught as a spear and drove the brecha away. Leistrun nodded thanks and turned back to the brecha, ignoring the blood running down his side. The warrior grabbed the brecha by what passed for the brecha’s throat and ripped it out, jumping back from the fountain of green ichor. If he survives his wound, he’ll be a warrior to watch.
Leistrun paced in front of her, keeping away any monsters. No, not in front of me, but in front of Eiden. Eiden’s helbraught glowed with a pale-yellow light. She was keeping her own against the monsters.
“Rizelya, with me!” Naila called. She added in mind-speech, *Something’s different about the janack still in the nest. We need to destroy it now!*
Rizelya took a quick look around the glade. The warriors in her section were taking care of the monsters—but just barely. One of the janacks was down and the other would soon follow. It took a moment for her to realize what was wrong. None of the brechas that had been controlled by the dead janacks were attacking their nest-mates. They were still attacking the warriors and Reds. Several still human bodies littered the area. Monster parts were strewn in utter abandon.
As she ran toward the nest, the remaining janack sent out several more brechas. “Dear Mother!” Rizelya swore. “There shouldn’t be any brechas left in the nest. Damn, there shouldn’t even be the thirty already on the field.”
She fed more fire magic into her helbraught, slicing through the spiky limbs of the brechas blocking her way to the janack still in the nest. She didn’t know how Eiden did it, but she felt a thin shield of air form around her. Ichor slid off it, not touching her skin or clothes. Soft growls next to her let her know several of the warriors had also broken away from the perimeter fight. She let them have the brechas. Rizelya focused all of her attention on getting through to the nest and the last janack.
Naila and Histrun reached the nest moments before Rizelya. She was surprised he had joined them. Damn old man, he was supposed to help the new warriors on the sidelines. She had to grudgingly admit he was moving well for someone so old. Then the janack rose on two of its tentacles, and she had other things to worry about.
Heat stalks tracked the small group. It was the largest janack Rizelya had ever seen; its stomach and head over ten feet in diameter and its tentacle over thirteen feet long. Gulping, she realized her helbraught wasn’t long enough to keep her away from its snapping teeth. A ring of fire sprang up behind them, keeping any monsters from attacking them from behind. She added her strength to Naila’s fire-ring. None of the monsters should be able to get through the double fire. Nor could any of their people join them.
It was just the three of them and the massive janack.
Rizelya noticed a weird protrusion on the top of the janacks’ head just as a tentacle whipped toward her. She jumped back, but before she could bring down her fiery blade, the tentacle ricocheted back, knocking her to the ground. The tentacle rose to crush her. She jabbed her helbraught into it and rolled, dragging the blade with her. Only her momentum allowed her to shave off a chunk of the tentacle. She continued rolling to escape the falling mass. The tentacle sprayed ichor as it reached for her again. She ran forward to cut away more of the tentacle closer to the body. It took a hard thrust to get her helbraught blade into the hide of the janack.
Usually the sharp blade, made sharper with her fire magic, easily cut through the tough hide of either a janack or brecha. She jerked on the blade to slice more of the tentacle away. A piece fell flopping on the ground. The rest of the tentacle shot toward her. She parried and ran under the tentacle until she was as close to the head as possible. She added more fire magic to her blade and shoved it into the tentacle. Pulling her blade across it, she cut deep into it but couldn’t cut it off. Avoiding the raining ichor, she slid under the tentacle to get to the other side. Another burst of fire magic into the blade and a deep thrust, and she was finally able to finish the cut. She jumped away and ran to the edge of the fire-ring to get away from the tentacle falling to the ground
As she reached the fire-ring, she felt a slamming against her senses as brechas assaulted the fire-ring around them. “What the frag!” she cursed. Brechas didn’t willingly run into the magic fire of the Reds. She glanced up, noticing again the peculiar protrusion on the janack’s head. Narrowing her focus, she heard a faint, strange humming coming from it.
The janack’s clicking sounded more like it was angry than in pain. Naila and Histrun were both battling tentacles of their own. Rizelya was happy to note they were both unharmed and fighting well. So far, she was the only one to sever one of the tentacles. Histrun darted in toward the body while Naila distracted it by thrusting her fiery helbraught at the mouth. A tentacle grasped for Naila, coming from behind her. She sensed the movement and jumped to the side, swinging her blade and chopping off a small chunk. Histrun missed his strike when the janack suddenly raised its body up out of his reach. She stood watching them fight for a few milcrons and suddenly realized it seemed as if this janack could not only sense them but could also track their movements. Testing her theory, Rizelya walked slowly to the right and several of the heat stalks waved and leaned in her direction. They followed her when she moved in the opposite direction. As she brandished her helbraught at the janack, the strange protrusion turned toward her. A tentacle snapped down, Rizelya dodged out of the way. The protrusion followed her movements until she reached the fire-ring and was out of its range.
In all the years Rizelya had fought these monsters, not once had this happened before. Something isn’t right about this janack, well about this whole nest. If Naila and Histrun could keep the attention of the monster on them, she might have a chance at reaching the head and severing it from the thin neck connecting it to its body. It was taking too long for Histrun’s venom to have any effect on the over-sized monster.
Each time she rushed toward the monster, heat stalks turned her way and a tentacle slammed toward her. Again, she danced back to the edge of the fire-ring. Unbelievably, it was still being bombarded by brechas, many of them on fire. It seemed as if all the brechas had abandoned the fighting on the outer ring and stormed the fire-ring surrounding the nest and the strange janack. This far back, Rizelya could hear the weird humming sound coming from the janack even more clearly. The more cuts it received from Naila and Histrun, the louder the hum and the fiercer the attacks on the fire-ring by the brechas. Dear Mother! They’re trying to rescue and protect it. This is new. I bet it has something to do with that strange protrusion.
Rizelya could sense her pack-mates behind her, attacking the brecha mob. Her quick respite showed her neither Naila nor Histrun were making any progress in reaching the head-bulb. She rushed in again at the monster only to have a tentacle reach for her. This time she was prepared; she had fed the blade even more fire magic and was able to slice through it. At the edge of her mind she sensed Eiden, and a sudden idea struck her.
*Eiden!* she mind-called. Only with pack-mates could they communicate by mind-speech. *Can you make an cold-air shield around me?*
*I don’t know . . .* Eiden’s reply was thoughtful. *I haven’t tried that before . . .*
A few moments later, the air around Rizelya was freezing. Small ice crystals danced in front of her.
*Whatever you’re doing, it’s working! Keep it up while I try to get to the head. This won’t end until this damned janack is dead.* Even as she said it, Rizelya knew it to be true.
This time when she rushed toward the monster, the heat stalks kept their attention on Naila and Histrun. She jumped, using her helbraught as a lever to vault up on a tentacle. She raced up the tentacle toward the head. Luck was with her; the tentacle she had chosen was on the opposite side of its mouth and gnashing teeth. As large as this janack was, it could easily eat a horse whole. The weird protrusion seemed to sense the danger and whipped toward her.
The sound was no longer a hum. It was loud and deep, piercing Rizelya’s head, making her feel like it would explode. Her fingers began to loosen their grip on the helbraught. The tentacle she stood on bucked and thrashed, attempting to throw her off. When that didn’t work, the end of it started to curl around to wind around her. She leaped onto the head, the tentacle missing her.
Rizelya gritted her teeth against the pain in her head. As she did, she realized the sound was almost mind-speech, convincing her to let go of the helbraught and stand still. It was all she needed. No one is ever going to mind control me! She tightened her grip and swung the blade with all her might at the protrusion. The blade met resistance, then slid through.
Immediately, the humming ceased and the brechas stopped throwing themselves at the fire-ring. But the danger wasn’t over until this monster was dead. Rizelya fed more fire magic into her helbraught blade, more than she had ever attempted before. The blade glowed deep red and orange. Tiny flames licked across its surface. She drove her helbraught deep into the janack’s head.
Exploding a janack was dangerous—the falling debris could injure one of the fighters—and was to be used as a last resort. They had already tried all the usual methods. Just trying to cut off the tentacles was proving to be more difficult than usual. The blades seemed to need more fire magic than usual to do the job, and Histrun’s venom wasn’t working fast enough. There was something different about it other than just its size and the peculiar protrusion. There was no other choice; she released her fire magic into the janack’s head.
She heard a sizzling noise, jumped off the janack, and raced to the edge of the fire-ring. As she did so, she yelled and mind-spoke at the same time, “Run! It’s going to explode!”
Rizelya threw a shield over herself just as the janack exploded. Gray ichor, green slime, and parts of tentacles plummeted to the ground. She felt the fire-ring flare as Naila cast a fire shield under the ring to contain the fallout of the explosion.
Rizelya huddled under her shield while the burning remains of the strange janack rained on her. She could vaguely hear the commotion of the other warriors and Reds fighting the rest of the janacks and brechas.
*Are you and Histrun okay?* she mind-spoke to Naila.
*I am. Histrun flew out of the fire-ring. Did you see the strange protrusion?*
*Up close. It was tracking the fighting, and I heard a hum. It seemed as if the janack was directing the others. This is so weird.*
*I didn’t notice. I was too busy fighting. Ah . . . the ‘rain’ has stopped.*
Rizelya looked around. No more monster parts fell.
*Go ahead and release your shield,* Naila said. *I’ll keep mine up so we can examine this thing.*
Rizelya let her shield go and slowly stood up. Naila’s fire shield and ring still surrounded the remains of the strange janack. Rizelya glanced around at the fighting behind the fire-ring. There was only one janack left. As she watched, a warrior drew its attention while a Red slashed at it with her glowing helbraught. The severed head flew to the ground. The janack shuddered, and tentacles thrashed in its death throes. A tentacle caught a young warrior unaware, tossing him several feet. He lay still.
A number of forms were spread out on the ground. Most were changing from warrior to human, but two were motionless, remaining in the warrior form. They were lucky more weren’t dead the way this fight had gone. Only one of the Reds was down, although the rest of them had wounds seeping blood. The women were checking each other for splotches of ichor and using their helbraughts to burn it off. Later, the healers would treat their wounds and purge them of any remaining toxin. First the area had to be cleansed. Eiden was holding up Leistrun as he limped toward the path leading to the horses. Once all the ichor was burned off them, the Reds crisscrossed the field, burning all the monster bits and parts they could find. It was the only way to keep the monsters’ malignant magic and poison from spreading.
A galloping horse drew Rizelya’s attention. Kaieli flung herself from her mount, bag in her hand, and raced to the nearest motionless form. The other Browns weren’t far behind. She could hear Kaieli directing the warriors and Browns to the various wounded even while she worked on the Red motionless beneath her hands. If Kaieli was working on her, her injury was serious, but she hadn’t passed into the Mother’s arms yet.
There would be time later to find out how the pack had fared in the battle. Rizelya’s job wasn’t finished.
Her head throbbed and her right arm burned. Surprised, she looked at her bicep. Blood flowed where ichor had eaten through her shirt. Raising her helbraught, she placed the glowing blade on the wound, it hissed as it neutralized most of the acid. Later she would have Kaieli remove the rest. If left untreated long enough, the acidic ichor turned poisonous. She didn’t have time to go to the healers now. She’d be fine for another octar or so.
“You okay?” Naila asked, looking Rizelya over as she joined her.
“Yeah, just a scratch.” Rizelya noted Naila’s own wounds, most of them also cauterized. “Here, you missed a spot.” She fed fire into her blade and then touched it to Naila’s forehead, where a drop of ichor had fallen. Rizelya was surprised neither of them weren’t more seriously wounded.
Naila looked around at the smoking monster debris. She frowned at Rizelya while shaking her head and rolling her eyes.
“Sorry, I didn’t see any other way of killing the janack. Nothing else was working.”
“I know. Glad you did. Need to find that thing.”
They walked around the remains of the strange janack, searching within the burning bits for the strange protrusion. Monster parts were flung all over within the Naila’s fire shield. They split up when it was apparent they weren’t going to find it quickly. They started in the central area with the largest of the monster parts and worked outward toward the fire barrier. One would prod something or turn over a bit with an air of excitement, only to be disappointed.
In the quiet Rizelya could hear an odd, high-pitched screech. It was so high she felt it more than heard it. She noticed it became louder when she was in the far south quadrant of their enclosure. She took a few steps toward the barrier. The sound grew louder.
“Do you hear that?”
Naila looked up from her own search, eyebrows knitted in confusion. “Hear what?”
“A high-pitched screech?”
Naila stood in an attitude of listening. “Nothing.”
“Come over here where it’s louder.”
Naila left off her search to join Rizelya, zigzagging around pieces of janack, some of which continued to twitch.
“Still nothing.” She shook her head when she stood next to Rizelya.
“Damn. You didn’t hear the humming either, did you?”
“I think I’m hearing the protrusion. I don’t know why I can hear it and you can’t.”
Rizelya took a step toward the barrier, the sound was louder. Her head began to throb. A few steps to the left and the sound and pain lessened. “It isn’t in that direction.” She returned to where Naila was standing and went right, and again the sound lessened. When she stepped forward the sound and pain intensified. “It’s in this direction, I’m sure.”
Using her pain as a beacon, she made her way to the fire-ring barrier, the sound and pain growing greater with each step she took. Spots swam in front of her eyes. A hand span from the barrier, she found it; any closer and the thing would have burned.
“Here it is,” Rizelya called out. Without thinking, she poked it with the tip of her helbraught. The resulting screech almost deafened her. She dug her helbraught into the ground, white knuckles gripping the staff. A wave of darkness hit her. In it she thought she saw a strange pale gray, gaunt face with dark gray hair and black eyes. The vision faded too fast for her to make much sense of it.
“Riz!” Naila cried in alarm.
Rizelya forced the bile in her throat back down. She squeezed her eyes shut until she felt the fear fade. When she opened her eyes, she found herself looking up at her sister. She’d blacked out. Rizelya clapped her hands over her ears at the horrendous screeching. Abruptly it stopped. Grateful for the reprieve, she turned onto her side to find herself staring at the protrusion. “Dark Mother!” she spat and scrambled back.
Naila’s air magic encased it, making it blurry, and blocked the sound it was emitting.
“Thanks! That helps.”
“Should see it closer,” Naila observed.
“I’m not going anywhere near that thing.” Rizelya dragged her helbraught to her. She tried to feed magic into the blade in case the thing jumped at her, but couldn’t. Huh? Where’s my magic? She scooted away and sat back on her heels, close enough to see what Naila was doing with the protrusion, but not close enough to touch it.
The protrusion was as long as her arm and translucent, with bumps running along the length. Naila squatted in front of the thing. Carefully she inserted the tip of her knife into the bubble of air surrounding it. Using the blade tip, she prodded the protrusion. “It’s squishy.”
“It was easy to cut off.” Rizelya felt like someone was watching her. It was there and gone in a moment.
*You coming over to see?*
“Nope, I’m staying right here.”
Naila rolled her eyes. She continued with her inspection, flinging comments to Rizelya. “Doesn’t want to turn over. Multiple circles.” Naila sliced one open.
Rizelya slammed her hands over her ears. “Don’t do that! Even with your shield I can still hear the stupid thing.”
“Okay. Won’t.” Naila turned back to her specimen. *A jelly like substance oozed out.* She lifted the mass near the cut end with her knife. *There’s some type of filament dangling from the bottom.*
The hair on Rizelya’s neck stood up. Someone was watching her. She glanced around. No one. Everyone else was busy taking care of the wounded and destroying monster bits. Then her gaze fell on the protrusion. Naila tipped it away from Rizelya, and the watching sensation eased. The protrusion rolled until the circles faced Rizelya; as it did, the watching sensation returned.
“Burn it!” she yelled. “That damn thing is watching us.”
It was a testament of Naila’s trust in her when Naila fed fire into her helstrablade. The fire touched the mass, and even with the air shield, the screeching hit Rizelya like a hammer. Pain blazed in her head. Again, she saw a flash of the gray women before she knew nothing.
Rizelya woke up moaning with Naila standing over her. “Ah crap, I blacked out again, didn’t I?”
Naila nodded then held up two fingers. *That’s twice in less than an octar.*
She struggled to sit up. Naila had to help her. “This is embarrassing. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Don’t know either. Kaieli might,” Naila observed.
“Is it gone?”
Naila nodded again and pointed.
Rizelya turned her head. A mass of smoldering slime was all that was left of the protrusion. She listened hard and couldn’t hear any lingering sound, but her head still pounded like a herd of billocks stampeding.
“The sound is gone, and so is the watcher.”
“Watcher?” Naila narrowed her eyes.
“Yeah. Both times immediately before I blacked out I thought I saw someone with charcoal gray hair and black eyes. Something was wrong with them; they were so skinny.”
*That isn’t good. You need to tell the White Priestess.*
“I will.” Now the danger was over, Rizelya couldn’t ignore the flaming pain from the acid burn on her bicep. Naila was holding her arm carefully. The areas around both of their wounds were inflamed, tinged an awful gray, and beginning to stink. Time was up; a healer needed to purge the janack’s toxins from their wounds. Rizelya glanced around and found her helbraught by her side. She used it to lever herself to a standing position. Her head reeled, but this time she didn’t pass out. “Let’s get out of here. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“Yes. Need to burn the rest.” Naila released her fire-ring around the janack remains.
As soon as the fire shield was down, Kaieli bolted across the ring toward Rizelya and Naila, adroitly avoiding the haphazardly strewn monster debris as she ran. Three of the Reds crossed the boundary and began walking the area setting all the monster debris on fire.
“Riz! Dear Heart, what in the Crone’s fires happened?” Kaieli kneeled in front of Rizelya and gently cupped her face. “I felt you pass out twice and I couldn’t cross the fire-ring to get to you. You look awful.”
“Gee, thanks. I feel awful. Drained.”
“Let me take care of your and Naila’s wounds, then we’ll see what else is wrong with you.”
Kaieli went to Naila, which she should have done first since Naila was the Keep Alpha. Rizelya knew Naila would let the transgression slide since Kaieli was Rizelya’s heart sister. The only bond stronger within the pack was a bond-mate.
No one noticed when Rizelya’s legs gave out and she dropped like a stone to the ground.
Sitting, Rizelya watched as Kaieli ran her hands in the air over the monster ichor on Naila. Beautiful bronze light poured from Kaieli’s hands and covered Naila’s wounds. The light grew darker, deepening to a dark, mud brown as the poison from the monster’s ichor was drawn out of Naila’s body. It took a bit longer than usual since they had waited for over an octar to get it removed. Kaieli made a motion and gathered the noxious light into a tight ball. One of the Reds came over and sent a tendril of fire to the ball. It flared and fine ash trickled to the ground. Naila’s wounds were raw and red, but now they didn’t have a ghastly gray tinge to them.
“How’s Histrun?” Naila asked as Kaieli smeared some ointment on her wounds and bound them with strips of clean cloth.
“He’s hurt but alive. Damn fool.” Kaieli shook her head. “He shouldn’t be fighting monsters at his age.” She turned to Rizelya, her face scrunched with worry when she saw Rizelya sitting on the ground. “What are you doing down there?”
“Seemed like you were taking forever. You getting sloppy?”
“Yeah, and you’re getting weak.” Kaieli sat next to Rizelya. Bronze light spread out over Rizelya’s bicep. Kaieli looked her deep into her eyes and asked quietly, “What happened? You don’t pass out.”
“Not sure. There was a new janack in the nest. I could hear it humming during the fight and after I blew it up, I could hear it screaming. I felt fine until then. Then it felt as if my magic and energy was draining away from me.”
Kaieli finished bandaging Rizelya’s arm. “Light a fire for me,” she commanded.
Rizelya lifted her hand to make fire dance on her palm. It was of her favorite tricks. “What in the Crone’s name!” For the first time since she was a little girl, no fire danced. She reached deeper to her magic and tried again. No fire. None. Not even a spark.
“That isn’t good,” Kaieli commented. She pulled a package out of her rucksack and unwrapped it. “Here, eat this.” She handed Rizelya a trail bar. It was dense, rich with nuts and fruit, and full of calories. A flask of hot, spiced taevo followed. “It will help revitalize you until we get back to the Keep.”
Rizelya nibbled on the trail bar trying not to get any fruit. She didn’t like fruit, especially dried. As the first bits hit her stomach, she realized she was ravenous. She stuffed the rest, fruit and all, in her mouth, barely chewing. She gulped down the taevo. Finished, she felt a bit better and looked around. The Reds were finished. Nothing but piles of ash were left of the janack. The fire-ring she and Naila had created to corral the strange janack had burned hotter than normal. A hand-width band of burned ground provided a clear demarcation of the area where they had fought. As she watched, Eiden moved through the clearing. A breeze blew in front of her, gathering the ash into a cyclone. The dirty cyclone lifted above the trees and toward the swamp where it dissipated, dropping the ash.
Eiden crossed the boundary, concentrating on gathering all the monster ash. The little group around Rizelya needed to leave so Eiden could finish her task. They couldn’t leave with Rizelya lounging on the ground. She lifted a hand to Naila. “Here, help me up.”
Naila grasped Rizelya’s hand in her strong grip and tugged her to her feet. Rizelya was glad she had the helbraught in her other hand as she swayed. Her head cleared a couple of breaths later so she started to walk away, only she found herself sitting on the ground, instead. She grimaced. Well at least I didn’t pass out this time.
“She can’t walk back to the horses in this shape,” Kaieli observed.
“True,” Naila answered. She looked around the battlefield. “Aistrun!” she called. He was one of the males still in warrior form. He turned their way, and seeing them, loped toward them.
Rizelya groaned. Of all the warriors, it would have to be him. He’d tease her unmercifully for her weakness. It’s what best friends did.
“Carry her,” Naila told Aistrun when he reached them.
“I can walk,” Rizelya insisted as she struggled to get her feet under her.
“Hey, Little Red. Troubles?” Without bothering to hear her answer, Aistrun swept her into his arms. He was careful to keep his claws from her tender skin.
“Wolf!” Rizelya cried. Woe to anyone else, even Kaieli, who tried to call them those names. It had started when they were children, when she was the littlest one training in their group and he was the tallest. At six-four, he was still one of the tallest in the pack and at five-two she was still the shortest. She struggled in his arms but it was futile with his greater strength.
“No worry, big bad wolf not eat you … this time.” He let his tongue loll out and panted a little. He looked more like a friendly dog than a frightening wolf. Most men didn’t talk much in warrior form and when they did it was a word or two at most. It was difficult to form the words around the different mouth shape and teeth. Aistrun was a jabber-mouth in either form.
“Let me down. I can walk.”
“No can do. Alpha said carry you, so I carry. Can’t disobey Alpha, can I?”
He had a point there. Not even as Naila’s sister could she disobey an alpha order. Rizelya gave up and settled against his chest. Aistrun shifted into an easy lope as he ran toward the horses. The movement lulled her to sleep. She didn’t rouse when he transferred her to someone else’s arms.
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In the cold predawn light, Rizelya rode in front of a force of fifty fighters. She glanced to her left at her half-sister, Naila. When Rizelya had entered the stable to saddle her horse, it had surprised her to see Naila doing the same. Since becoming the Strunland Keep Alpha, Naila rarely led a fighting-pack anymore. The demands of leading a Territory Keep kept her far too busy.
Like the other ten women in the group, Rizelya and Naila wore red from head to foot: leather shirt, pants, and boots. A hooded cape covered their heads and shoulders. Once they reached the monster’s nest, they would toss it aside.
Besides being the color of fire magic, the janacks and brechas, a symbiotic pair of monsters, couldn’t see red. The Malvers’ monsters had plagued their world since the end of the Great War, over a thousand years ago.
A sigh drew Rizelya’s attention to her heart-sister and best-friend, riding on her right side. A few of Kaieli’s dark brown, almost black, curls peeked from the hood of her cloak. Like all Posair women, her hair and eye color indicated her Talents, her magical powers. Kaieli was an extremely strong Brown, a worker of earth magic. Her blue-gray eyes showed her secondary Talents were Blue and Gray.
“Kaieli, I wish you wouldn’t come these battles,” Rizelya said. “Let the Browns, with less empathic ability, take care of us on the field.”
“You know I can’t do that,” Kaieli replied. “We all have our parts to play in our war with the monsters. Mine is to help the fighters with my healing abilities, and your job, Dear Heart, is to kill janacks and brechas.”
Rizelya’s lips tightened into a hard line. As much as she didn’t like it, Kaieli was right. Many fighters were alive and healthy because of Kaieli being on the field with them.
Rizelya’s own dark auburn hair and brown eyes proclaimed her a Red with some Brown. The Red’s fire magic was an effective means of fighting and killing the monsters.
Over the past seventy-five years, the formation of the monsters’ nests had fallen into a pattern. The Posairs could predict when one would develop fairly accurately. This allowed them to kill the monsters before they escaped into the wilds. The nest they rode toward should mature soon.
After an octar of riding, the group pulled their horses to a stop in a clearing. A large corral sat in the center, shaded by trees, with water barrels on one end. The fighters dismounted, loosened the girth straps on their horses’ saddles, and led them into the enclosure. Kaieli and the other two healers riding with the group agreed to wait with the horses until the battle was over. They removed blankets and baskets from the back of their saddles. Two of the thirty warriors stayed behind to guard the horses and the healers.
Rizelya grabbed her weapon, a helbraught, from its place on her saddle. Each woman carried one. Affixed to the staff was a two-foot long, slightly curved blade. It easily penetrated the thick hide of the monsters. Rizelya looked with longing at the other women’s helbraughts. All of them were several inches longer than hers. The user’s height determined the length of the staff. It meant she had to get closer to the monsters. On her belt, she carried a helstrablade, a dagger also made from helstrim. If needed, she could feed her magic into it, like she did with her helbraught’s blade. A blade made from helstrim never needed its razor edge sharpened.
The men had their own weapons: claws, teeth, and venom. Ages past, the men had traded their ability to work all but the most minor magic for the gift of shapeshifting. A wolf and a warrior-wolf were their two other forms. At a signal from their leader, the men shifted into their wolf form and slunk into the forest.
Eiden, the only non-Red female fighter in the group, threw back the hood of her cape and the sunlight glinted on her sunny-yellow hair. She grinned at Rizelya. Flecks of green flashed in her gold eyes. A few years ago, she’d cajoled Rizelya into teaching her how to fight after Rizelya caught Eiden following the pack into a battle. Tradition taught the Yellows’ air magic wasn’t effective against the monsters. Only Reds could damage the monsters with their fire magic. Being a double Yellow made Eiden’s air Talent impressive and strong. She was able to cool or heat air, and she had a gift for solidifying it. Even so, Rizelya felt responsible for Eiden and would keep her safe.
The group of nine women strode silently down the path, their hooded capes flaring as they walked. The shadowy shapes of the wolves flowing in the trees kept pace with them. A hush fell around them. Predators stalked the forest this dawn, and they were hunting.
The wind shifted slightly, and Rizelya drew in a deep breath and snorted from the reek of brechas and janacks.
Rizelya moved her helbraught in front of her. She fed a small amount of fire magic into the blade. Glancing at the forms shadowing the women, she nodded to herself. Yes, the men have caught the smell too.
The foul odor became more pervasive as the group drew nearer to the nest site. Although the timing of the nests was in an established pattern, the size never could be predicted. Sometimes, the stench would indicate how many monsters they’d have to fight.
This one smelled big.
Rizelya suppressed a shudder.
Naila didn’t pause when the monster stink wafted over them. Instead she led the group toward the nest, her pace strong and confident. She held her helbraught loosely in her hands. Rizelya admired her much older sister, who carried on the family tradition of becoming a Keep Alpha. Everyone expected Rizelya to become one, too. So far, she had evaded being even a squad-pack alpha.
A few milcrons later, the group reached the demarcation where forest and swamp vied for dominance. The pools of malignant magic caused both swamps and monster nests to develop. Rizelya had heard there were even swamps in the middle of the dry plains.
She, along with the rest, stopped at the edge of the marshy ground.
Soon the battle would begin …